Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is one of the greatest vampire/zombie novels ever written, and is a noted inspiration on people like Stephen King and George Romero. The book tells the story of Robert Neville, who is seemingly the lone survivor of a plague that turned most of humanity into bloodsucking ghouls. Neville survives nightly attacks by hordes eager for his blood while trying to overcome the crushing loneliness of being the last human left. It’s a book that manages the twin feat of being a great horror story and an achingly sad character study; it’s got a gut-punch of a twist too.
I Am Legend is an inherently cinematic concept, but it hasn’t had a smooth ride on the big screen. It was first adapted into The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. Matheson himself wrote the screenplay but chose to be credited with a pseudonym when he dissatisfied with the result. The Last Man On Earth is the closest to the original story, but suffers from a painfully low budget and Price being miscast in the title role. He does his best and is actually affecting in a couple of scenes, but he hardly screams everyman. This version also allegedly inspired Night of the Living Dead; namely the scenes of mindless vampires attacking Price’s house.
The book was adapted again in 1971 by Warner Bros, where it became the campy Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. This new version radically altered the plot, turning Neville into a manly scientist with an eager trigger finger. It’s a terrible adaptation of the book, turning the vamps into cloaked albinos who hate light and want to destroy the relics of the ‘old’ world. That said it’s a hard film to hate, thanks to Heston’s charismatic turn and the eerie scenes of a deserted L.A.
Warner Brothers sat on the rights to I Am Legend for many years until they decided to dust them off again around the mid-1990s. They reached out to screenwriter Mark Protosevich (The Cell) to write a draft, which instantly became the toast of the town. Seemingly everyone read Protosevich’s script, and soon names like Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas were circling the project.
Protosevich’s draft had little to do with the book–a recurring factor with the movies based around it–and turbocharged the monster concept into a full on blockbuster. The vampires now became ‘Hemocytes,’ intelligent creatures with emaciated physiques and terrifying speed and agility. There’s a lot of great character work in there too, with Protosevich managing to capture Neville’s overwhelming loneliness.
The studio eventually decided on Arnold Schwarzenegger for the lead and hired Ridley Scott to helm it. Scott apparently wasn’t a major fan of Protosevich’s work, however, eschewing his draft in favor of a new one by John Logan. Scott saw the potential to turn this high concept idea into a merging of blockbuster and art movie, and his ambitious plans are what ultimately doomed the project.
For one thing, he planned to trim dialogue to the bone, with the first act being near silent. The audience would follow Arnie’s Neville while he scavenged the ruins of Los Angeles, and occasionally fended off attacks from Hemocytes, who in this draft had returned to the feral state of the novel. Neville captures one of these creatures and forms a bond with her, hoping he can cure her and maybe save the rest of the infected.
Scott wanted to reinvent Schwarzenegger’s onscreen persona, showing the action icon struggling with grief and depression without any quips to lean on. He may not be the most gifted of thespians, though anyone who saw his restrained turn in Maggiewill know he can rise to the challenge with the right project.
Since it’s Ridley Scott we’re talking about, he obviously wasn’t going to let the chance to realize a post-apocalyptic world pass him by. He employed famed storyboard artist Sylvain Despretz to sketch out his vision, leading to some stunning artwork that’s the closest we’ll get to seeing Scott’s version. According to Despretz, the storyboard work was basically him transcribing Scott’s ideas from page one, with the director having a very precise idea of how he envisioned the movie.
Scott also collaborated with effects company Studio ADI on the look of the creatures. The plan was for the Hemocytes to be incredibly skinny but also statuesque, with the creatures having taken to wrapping themselves in plastic and trash to stay safe from the sun. They also would have indulged in tribal body painting and symbols, to give them just a hint of intelligence. In 2013, ADI released videos of their makeup on I Am Legend to YouTube, displaying the nightmarish designs Scott had in mind.
Despite the immense promise of the project, a number of factors brought it down. Firstly, WB was coming off a string of failures, including The Postman and Batman & Robin. They were seeking sure-fire hits and didn’t feel a downbeat R-rated blockbuster was a sound investment. They also felt it cost too much, with Arnold’s hefty salary swallowing a decent chunk of the budget.
The failure of Batman & Robin didn’t do much for Arnie’s bankability either. Scott himself was coming off a string of box office duds (White Squall, G.I. Jane) and the movie lacked merchandise potential; the market for action figures based around a depressed, alcoholic Arnold Schwarzenegger is presumably a niche one. Scott worked to reduce the budget but the plug was pulled alongside Tim Burton’s pricy blockbuster Superman Lives.
Scott has never been terribly sentimental so he doesn’t openly lament the project. Since its demise freed him up to make Gladiator–the movie credited with reigniting his career–he might even view it as lucky. For fans of the book or thoughtful sci-fi in general, however, it ranks as a tragic missed opportunity. It had a great script, a unique combo of star and director, and would have been a rare big budget studio movie that relied on mood and emotion instead of action.
That’s not to say the eventual Will Smith version didn’t have merits. Its vision of an abandoned New York is chilling, plus Smith gave one of his strongest dramatic turns to date. It’s let down mainly by a weak third act and some truly appalling CGI creatures.
After flirting for years with the idea of making a sequel or prequel–featuring delightful concepts like Will Smith clones and vampire elephants–Warner Bros. have flirted with a reboot, but even if it ever gets off the ground, it seems unlikely Scott will jump back on board, which is a real shame. He had a vision for something special, and lord knows the book deserves a great movie based around it.
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.